Taking a child with autism to Disneyland or a trip of any kind can be overwhelming and a bit challenging. Here’s what Bethany wrote for us about her experiences.
We thought so the first time we took our son (diagnosed with autism and anxiety disorder) to Disneyland. The lines, the crowds, the loud sounds, the dark rides, the LINES—it was all over stimulating and all a bit much.
But after that first year, we evaluated our mistakes, did some research, and decided to take advantage of what Disney offers. Because what they offer to families of children with special needs is amazing.
Tip #1. Get a Guest Assistance Pass
This is probably the most well known, but I’m amazed at how many of my autism mom friends haven’t heard of it. The Guest Assistance Pass is available at City Hall guest services in the Disneyland portion of the park, and also at guest services in California Adventure. Basically the pass (when used by families affected by autism) is meant for busy days (or busy rides) for guests who have a hard time waiting in the long lines, surrounded by crowds. By showing it to the cast member at the ride, your family (as long as there are 6 or less of you) will forgo the line and go into a separate entrance (sometimes the Fast Pass line), often with a quiet waiting area. This is an amazing accommodation made by Disney, so we try to honor that and use it as infrequently as possible. If there is a Fast Pass, then we get one of those and use it. If the line is short, then we don’t use the pass. If we can utilize the Baby Switch instead, then we do that. You get the picture. We don’t want to abuse the system.
To get the pass, you will need to explain to the cast member at guest services the reasons. What does your child struggle with? Crowds? Long lines? Overstimulation? Be as detailed as possible. I always carry my diagnosis paperwork, but due to HIPPA, they aren’t allowed to refer to it. There have been times that the cast member has wanted to meet my son, and others that he’s flat out refused to come into the building, so there’s that.
Tip #2. Don’t be afraid to ask
My son is deathly afraid of princesses (no idea why). This is one of the most problematic irrational fears when you have a four year old sister who is OBSESSED. We wanted my daughter to be able to see a couple of princesses, but didn’t want to deal with a major meltdown. While getting our Guest Assistance Pass last year, I mentioned our problem to the cast member helping me. One hour later, they had us set up in a private room with two princesses, the Fairy Godmother, and a mouse friend of Cinderella’s just for my little one. Disney is amazing. AMAZING. And they will bend over backwards for just one guest–even (maybe, especially) a very little one.
Tip #3. You Tube is your best friend
Many people with autism have a difficult time with change and the unknown. We found that out the hard way at Disneyland during the first year. Learning from our rookie mistakes, we turned to You Tube to help us prep for trip number two. We watched EVERY ride numerous times. We watched them so many times, I was sick of some of the rides before we even actually rode them. But my son knew what to expect and things went so much smoother. Last year when my son was freaking out about pin trading before our trip, we watched a couple of You Tube videos and then he figured out it was awesome and not scary at all. The free videos that you can order from Disneyland about the parks are another great resource for this.
Tip #4. Use the Baby Center
It’s called the “baby” center, but it isn’t only for babies. They have toilets great for potty training kids, quiet spots for those just needing a little break from the noise and crowds, and (a hidden treasure)-microwaves. This is especially great if you have a child who is very, very picky. My son wants to eat Mac and Cheese for every meal and sometimes pushing him to eat something different ends up in a meltdown.. So we bring Easy Mac (in the portion, microwavable bowls) into the park and go to the Baby Center to warm it up. While it cooks, he spends a few quiet moments looking through the picture books they provide in the waiting area which really helps him to regroup as well. He has his favorite food, a little break, we haven’t had to fight with him, and we can go on our merry way. Win win win.
Tip #5. Make Identification tags
This is a smart idea for any kid, but especially one with special needs. There are many, many kind of ID tags out there: sticker tattoos, metal bracelets, metal tags that attach to a child’s shoe, but we’ve gone the cheap route. Each of our kids has a laminated tag that they’ve decorated with stickers, their name, our cell phone numbers, and my son’s has his diagnosis. The tags are attached to either a belt loop or their pin trading lanyard. We have a family meeting and practice what to do if he/she gets lost. The tags provide a lot of peace of mind.
Tip #6. Bring a flashlight
Dark and the unknown go hand in hand, so if a child with anxiety can see his surroundings, it gives him a sense of control and reassurance. My son has decided that he is even going to try Haunted Mansion this year as long as he can have a flashlight to shine at the “robot ghosts.” Glow sticks are also a lot of fun and cheap to buy from the dollar store.
Tip #7. Take autism cards
We hand these out when we get on the plane and are standing in line for a ride that my son might have a difficult time on initially, as a preemptive strike. They basically say, “I have autism and anxiety, please be understanding.” I’ve noticed that people are more compassionate when they understand the background of a situation, so I provide that rather than just get upset when they make rude remarks about my parenting or about my son when/if things get dicey.
Tip #8. Know what to avoid
There are some rides or circumstances to avoid regardless of how much preparation has been done. Is your child afraid of the dark or often can’t decipher between reality and pretend? Steer clear of Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Carribean. Are crowds too much? Go at an off peak time to avoid the huge amounts of people. There are great resources that detail each ride and even show predictions for crowd levels. My favorite is the Unofficial Guide to Disneyland (online version: touringplans.com).
Tip #9. Use the stroller as a place of refuge
This sounds really strange, but there are times when we have found a dark, semi private corner, pulled the canopy down on the stroller and just let my son had a few minutes of “down time”. It works like magic. We are able to get a few more hours in the park without a problem as long we take frequent breaks. One of my favorite Disneyland area discoveries has been City Stroller Rentals (http://www.citystrollerrentals.com/). Our large stroller won’t fit into a small rental car, so renting a stroller is a fantastic option. City Stroller Rentals has great prices, fabulous, personal customer service, and delivers (and picks up) straight to your hotel.
Tip #10. Do the familiar/comfortable things first
Every year when we get home from our trip, my husband and I sit down and discuss “how could we have made this trip better?” Despite our best efforts, there are still improvements that can be made. The tidbit above is what we came up with after our 2012 trip. Day One in the parks we tried to push my son into one too many new situations and ended up dealing with a stare inducing meltdown on a ride. Not fun. Day Two he was much more relaxed and comfortable with the whole park experience which made it a lot easier to attempt new things. This year we will be riding the favorites on Day One and saving the less familiar for Day Two.
Most of all-have fun! These are the vacations that your kids will talk about for years to come!
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(Thanks Bethany for the wonderful article!)